It's not a question that the results of the local elections thwarted the plans of Fidesz, especially in the capital. After nine years in power the government party has to negotiate with the opposition that it had been increasingly ridiculing ever since taking power in 2010, until the opposition even stopped taking itself seriously, and out of all places, in Budapest.

This means that the capital's urban development is not to be taken for granted by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party for the next five years. However, if you take a closer look you will notice that this was not exactly the case in the years of the supposed "sole rule" either.

It began with the Olympics

The dream of arranging the Summer Olympics in 2024 was shattered by a civilian initiative, which managed to collect a quarter of a million signatures from Budapest citizens in favour of organising a referendum about the application to host the Olympics. This made Orbán cancel his plans. Perhaps he sacrificed the Olympics for a repeat victory at the parliamentary elections of 2018.

The civilian initiative running under the motto "No to Olympics" grew to become the Momentum movement, which premiered at these elections but clearly did not manage to gain the necessary five percent limit to enter Parliament. A year later at the European parliamentary elections the movement tripled its previous results and managed to send two representatives to Brussels – meanwhile becoming the second-strongest oppositional force in Hungary.

Accordingly, the Prime Minister showed political foresight in 2017 when he did not dare try to bring the Olympics to the Hungarian capital at the cost of his own failure. Obviously, this leads to an interesting constellation concerning the development options of Budapest, led by Mayor Gergely Karácsony since October 2019. He actually represents a splinter party but has been used as a figurehead by the gradually unifying opposition for a long time. There is hope that the collaboration of Orbán and Karácsony will be beneficial for the capital.

The rehabilitation of City Park

The first discussions after the municipal elections concerned the large projects that are an image of Fidesz's concept of a green Budapest in a modern way, a sports city suited to host all kinds of global sports events, or the healthcare system of the 21st century. In accordance with his election promises, Karácsony started dealing with the Liget Project in City Park, the athletics stadium for the 2023 World Championship and the "super hospital" planned in southern Buda. The discussion about the Liget Project is especially symbolic, for Orbán is planning to rebuild City Park, which is considered as the green lungs of Pest, completely according to his taste.

Even if international tourism and museum experts credit an extraordinary flair to the more than 100-year-old public park, this area became quite run-down in the past decades, except for Heroes' Square. Therefore, all Budapest citizens should support a reconstruction. Following Fidesz's overwhelming triumph in 2010 the time seemed right for this, although the idea of creating a new museum quarter and the rehabilitation of the park still needed to be linked.

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Then-mayor István Tarlós still spoke about the establishment of a new museum quarter on the huge fallow area behind Nyugati Railway Station in his 2010 Budapest Program, while in 2011 the discussion was about an "Andrássy Quarter" in the vicinity of the avenue with the same name. This thoroughfare leads directly into the heart of City Park, so it took only one small further step to invent the actual "Museum Grove" project in 2012, which was later renamed "Liget Budapest".

The reconstruction of the museum area was originally planned for HUF 60 billion, but since there were new ideas continually popping up about the "park rehabilitation", the costs rocketed through the ceiling. Money plays no role in the giant projects planned by the Orbán government, and as long as the engine of the economy is running solidly, nothing was expected to put a stop to that.

However, the governmental concept triggered some radical environmentalists, who turned against the (in their opinion) sterile character of the future park. They fought obstinately for every building that was supposed to fall victim to the construction project. Up until autumn 2019, these green activists were fighting and losing against the construction managers and the authorities, however there is a green mayor sitting in the Budapest city hall now who likes to ride a bike and loves park establishments with lush greenery.

Oligarchs getting richer

Karácsony is opposing a project company that has been relieved from numerous legislative requirements – thanks to government – and rents the area of City Park for 99 years (!) – a closed stock corporation with a name that speaks for itself, betraying that instead of "rehabilitation" we are actually talking about property development.

The sustained protests achieved that three planned museums (for architecture, photography and transport) will be placed elsewhere. However, City Park's green areas are not only threatened by the concrete blocks, which are placed "deep" in the earth during construction, thereby endangering roots, but also by the thematic areas such as the park for blind people, the huge playground or the "adventure park for dogs".

The project company measures all these elements as green areas, and it's irrelevant to them if 200-year-old trees are getting in the way of the construction work.

Led by the new green mayor, the new Budapest City Council is obviously striving for a compromise: there should be no such buildings established in City Park anymore for which construction has not yet started. This includes the new National Gallery, the House of Innovations and the planned theatre.

It would make less sense to block the construction of the new Ethnographic Museum. The underground levels of this enormous structure are already completed, and the colossus above is supposed to appear on top of an area that was previously used only as a parking place on the edge of the park.

This is one of the larger cost items of the Liget Budapest project – the underground parking alone cost around HUF 10 billion to build – and the museum should be completed from a total budget of HUF 26 billion. The Biodom at the expanded zoo at the other end of the park was originally estimated to cost HUF 33 billion. The former Olof Palme House, built in 1885, was reopened as the House of Millennium after a comprehensive restoration of HUF 3 billion. The House of Music, located in the heart of City Park, is estimated around HUF 20 billion.

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Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony

The contractors for these billion-value projects are the oligarchs close to the Prime Minister, primarily his son-in-law, István Tiborcz, and Lőrincz Mészáros, who the opposition likes to refer to as Orbán's "front man". According to various estimates, the Liget Project has already swallowed around HUF 150 billion, about half of the final (?) costs, which were recently unofficially not denied any more even by the government, amounting to about HUF 300 billion. The projects, which are financed by tax income, are enriching the Fidesz business circles, in a way that the mayor coming from the opposition cannot actually do anything about.


Costs always get out of hand

The largest sports project following the recently handed-over Puskás Stadion (for which the costs practically doubled while the project was running, amounting to HUF 190 billion), namely the light athletic stadium planned for the 2023 World Championships, is a different story. Up until now there are only ambitious plans, which go way beyond building a purposeful stadium for the third-largest sports event in the world. The stadium is only a figurehead and a central element of the city rehabilitation plans dealing with Ferencváros and the northern part of Csepel Island on the Danube, which are supposed to completely turn the two districts head over heels.

The hypermodern Danube Arena built for the swimming world championships in 2017 ended up costing the taxpayers HUF 130 billion. Government official Balázs Fürjes cannot even make an estimation for the costs related to the athletics summit as of yet. While the Hungarian government has given guarantees concerning the establishment to the International Association of Athletics Federations World Association, they are really getting short on time: the construction of the stadium with a provisory 40,000 seats, which will finally be built for only 13,000 spectators, must begin right now. This is why the Ferencváros district and the capital run by left liberals is able to easily dictate their terms to the Fidesz government at the moment.

Looking for compromises

The most important of the above mentioned terms must be the demand for more green surfaces. The resistance against the reconstruction of City Park made the citizens of the capital aware that Budapest needs more air to breathe: according to the statistics the air in the city centre, between City Park and the Danube, is unhealthy every second day.

The total picture is somewhat friendlier, since for every citizen of the whole territory of the capital there are six square metres of green surface with trees. However, the same statistics for Vienna are 125 square metres.

It's logical that Budapest made terms for the 2023 athletics by demanding the establishment of new green surfaces. In Csepel, on the northern tip of the island, a real city park is supposed to be established. The new sports establishments built for the professional sports events should be open to the public after the championship. The absolute transparency of contracts and a strict accounting of costs was a new element.

Additionally, Budapest would like to come to terms with the government so that other projects concerning the development of the transportation network will not have to be cancelled due to the sports event. The mayor's demand, according to which the government must give an additional HUF 50 billion to the capital in the following five years for investment in ambulant healthcare, seems quite far-fetched.

The government's position is interesting on these questions: Orbán looks open for negotiation and emphasises that no project will be realised against the will of Budapesters. Of course, Fidesz and the opposition are still fiercely hostile, just like before, but the governing party cannot speak down from the position of power towards the capital anymore.

Mayor Karácsony will most likely stand a chance to bring his own interests on the table if he opposes the "dreamer" Orbán; at least, the prestigious US magazine Politico has just rated the Hungarian Prime Minister as someone who packs his messages into simple marketing slogans.

The magazine placed Orbán right behind the greatest "dreamer", Greta Thunberg, who placed first in its ranking of dreamers and visionaries. Whatever you think about Orbán, we must admit that he does have ideas for his country and its capital for sure. We will see in Budapest soon whether the hostile political powers are able to develop visions for their electors together.


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